The Taj Mahal has been cited as “the jewel of Muslim art in India, and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage.” Rabindranath Tagore described the Taj Mahal as “a tear on the face of eternity.”
The Taj Mahal, one of the most flawless architectural creations of the world, is an integrated complex of structures and is regarded as one of the eight wonders of the world, whose architectural beauty has never been greater than that.
It is generally considered the finest example of Mughal architecture, a style combining elements of Persian, Turkish, Indian, and Islamic styles. For centuries, the Taj Mahal has inspired poets, painters, and musicians who try and capture its elusive magic in words, color, and song.
Located in the city of Agra, situated about 200 km south of New Delhi, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, the Taj Mahal is best seen on a full moon night though some find it ethereal at dawn while some insist that it is sensuous at the end of the daylight. The story of the Taj Mahal, an example of devotion and faith is unique in itself.
The Taj Mahal in its protection of space and proportion in the classical perfection of its shape, in its combination of historical and delicacy & in the quality of its decoration, represents the culmination of Indian land. It can be interpreted as a glorious and profound symbol of love.
Story of Taj Mahal
The story of the Taj Mahal reflects the intensity of love. The fairytale began when walking through the bazaar of Agra, Prince Qhurram saw an exceptionally beautiful girl.
After five years, on a special day they got married, and from that moment began the great epic of love. Prince Qhurram was the 5th son of Emperor Jahangir. He was a man of extraordinary brilliance, a great diplomat, a warrior, and a lover of art. Jahangir once wrote, “In art, in reason, in battle, there is no comparison between him and my other children”.
In honor of his numerous victories Jahangir entitled him “Shah Jahan”-the king of the world. After Jahangir’s death, all his sons quarreled over the throne. After fighting for many years, Shah Jahan killed all his brothers under suspicious circumstances & became the emperor. Besides him, stood his queen, comrade, and confidante, a rare combination of beauty and brains.
Origin and Inspiration
Shah Jahan who ruled from 1628 to 1658, Mughal’s period of greatest prosperity, was married to Arjumand Bano Begum in 1612. He called his wife Mumtaz Mahal or “Crown of the Palace” because she was very precious to him.
She would counsel him in diplomatic clatters, and stayed loyally by his side through good times and bad: in the sumptuous royal palaces of Agra as well as the transient tents of war. Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan had 14 children, and the Queen accompanied him everywhere. It was during one of the military campaigns in central India that Mumtaz Mahal died in 1631, shortly after giving birth to their 14th child Gauhara Begum.
Her dying wish to Shah Jahan was that he should “build a tomb in her memory, such as the world had never seen before”. Shah Jahan who was grief-stricken and inconsolable had lost not only a beloved wife but also a shrewd political adviser and the royal court is said to have been in mourning for two years with no music, and no feasting.
Shah Jahan vowed to erect a memorial to his Artistic expression of Mumtaz Mahal queen in pristine marble, something utterly without equal anywhere in the world and few would deny that he succeeded. Contemporary court chronicles concerning Shah Jahan’s grief form the basis of the love story traditionally held as the inspiration of the Taj Mahal.
Selection of Site
The Taj Mahal is located in Agra. The city Agra is a historical town in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The city Agra was previously the capital of the Mughal Empire. Shah Jahan selects a site governed by sprawling gardens on a bend on the left bank of the river Yamuna. Shah Jahan may have chosen this specific site because of its beauty, and because there was a clear view of the site from the Imperial Palace at the Red Fort. Rabindranath Tagore explains the monument as rising above the banks of the river “like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time.”
Construction began with setting the foundations of the tomb. An area of roughly 3 acres was excavated and filled with dirt to reduce seepage from the water. The entire site was leveled to a fixed height about 50 m above the river bank.
These wells were later filled with stone and rubble, forming the basis for the footings (stone column piles) of the tomb. An additional well was built to the same depth nearby to provide a visual method to track water level changes over time.
In place of lashed bamboo, the typical scaffolding method, workmen constructed a colossal brick scaffold that mirrored the inner and outer surfaces of the tomb. The scaffold was so extensive that foremen estimated it would take years to dismantle. According to legend, Shah Jahan decreed that anyone could keep bricks taken from the scaffold, and therefore it was dismantled by peasants overnight.
A team of 20 or 30 oxen strained to pull the blocks on specially constructed wagons according to contemporary accounts.
The order of construction was:
- The plinth
- The tomb
- The four minarets
- The mosque and jawab
- The gateway
The plinth and tomb took nearly twelve years to complete. The remaining parts of the complex took an additional ten years. The entire complex was built in stages.
A complex infrastructure provided water for the Taj Mahal. Water was drained from the river by a series of purs (an animal-powered rope and bucket mechanism). The water flowed into a large storage tank, where, by thirteen additional purs, it was raised to a large distribution tank above the Taj Mahal ground level.
From the distribution tank, the water flowed into three secondary tanks from which it was piped to the complex. A 2.5 m earthenware pipe lies about 1.5 m below the surface in line with the main walkway. This fills the main pools of the complex. Additional copper pipes supplied the water fountains in the north-south canal.
The fountain pipes were not jointed directly to the main pipes. Instead, a copper pot was installed under each fountain pipe. The water filled the pots allowing equal pressure in every fountain.
The Taj Mahal is a total package of tomb, mosque, gardens, gateways, and fountains. Work on the mausoleum began in 1633 and 20,000 workers recruited from across North India led by Muhammad Hanif (the Superintendent of masons), labored for 17 years to construct. To accommodate the workmen employed, a small town, named after the deceased empress “Mumtazabad” now known as Taj Ganj was built adjacent to the site. The Taj Mahal was completed in 1648 costing the Mughal Exchequer Rs.32 million. Mir Abdul Karim and Mukkarimat Khan of Shiraz handled the finances and management of daily production.
The design of the Taj Mahal cannot be ascribed to any single mastermind. It is the culmination of an evolutionary process that reached the perfected stage in the development of Moghul architecture. Such an ambitious project demanded talent from many quarters. Sculptors from Bukhara (Uzbekistan), calligraphers from Syria and Persia, inlayers from South India, stonecutters from Baluchistan, a man who specialized in building turrets, and another who carved only marble flowers 37 men in all formed the creative nucleus. Ismail Khan a designer of hemispheres and a builder of domes came from Turkey. Qazim Khan traveled to Agra to cast the solid gold finial that crowned the Turkish master’s dome. Chiranjilal, a local citizen from Delhi was chosen as the chief sculptor and mosaicist. Amanat Khan from Shiraz was the chief calligrapher at the Taj Mahal. Inlay craftsmen, calligraphers, stone-carvers & masons came from all across India & lands as distant as Persia and Turkey. The master mason was from Baghdad, an expert in building the double dome from Persia, and an inlay specialist from Delhi.
Although the treasury was well filled, prodigious quantities of rare stuff and precious materials were required. Nephrite jade and crystal came from Chinese Turkestan in Central Asia. Turquoise from Tibet, yellow amber from Upper Burma, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, chrysolite from Egypt, rare shells, coral, and mother-of-pearl from the Indian Ocean, agates from Yemen, garnets from Bundelkhand, onyx, and amethyst from Persia were all brought in. Topazes, onyxes, garnets, sapphires, bloodstone, and 43 types of gems in all (ranging in depth from Himalayan quartz to Golconda diamonds) were ultimate aim to be used in embellishing the Taj. Mumtaz Mahal’s final resting place was ornamented like a queen’s jewel box.
Red sandstone from local quarries and marble dug from the hills of far-off Makrana, slightly southwest of Jaipur in Rajasthan were the principal materials used. In order to transport the materials, a ten-mile-long ramp of tamped earth was built through Agra, and on it trudged an unending parade of elephants and bullock carts dragging blocks of marble to the construction place. On reaching the Taj, the marble was hoisted into place by means of an elaborate post-and-beam pulley manned by teams of mules and masses of workers tugging and hauling. The Makrana white marble assumes subtle variations of light, tint, and tone at different times of the day. At dawn it assumes a soft, dreamy aspect, at noon it appears to be a dazzling white & in the moonlight, the dome looks like a huge iridescent pearl.
The first buildings to be constructed were the tomb proper and the two mosques that flank it. The four minarets were then constructed and finally, the gateway and auxiliary buildings were erected. All these were built as integral parts of a single unit. Carefully planned to harmonize for a law of Islam decrees that once a tomb is completed, nothing can be added to it and absolutely nothing can ever be taken away from it.
The architectural complex is comprised of 5 main elements:
- The Darwaza or main gateway
- The Bageecha or garden
- The Masjid or mosque
- The Naqqar Khana or rest house
- The Rauza or the Taj Mahal mausoleum
Approach to the Taj
The walled complex is approached from the south through a red sandstone forecourt – Chowk-I Jilo Khana, wide paths, flanked by arched kiosks, run to high gates in the east & west. The main entrance, a massive arched gateway topped with delicate domes and adorned with Koranic verses, stands at the northern edge. The lettering spacing and density have been customized to give an impression to the beholder. The entrance today, complete with security checks is through a narrow archway in the southern wall to the right of the gate.
The garden, according to the holy Quran is symbolic of Paradise. As Islam was born in the arid region of Arabia, the vision of a lush green, well-laid out & watered garden came to be associated with life & Paradise. In due course of time, green became symbolic of Islam.
Muslims also venerate water, as it was scarce in the Arabian Desert- The birthplace of Islam. According to Islam, there are 4 rivers in paradise one of water, milk, wine, and honey. The concept of these 4 rivers flowing through the garden of Paradise led to the charbagh style of garden planning.
The mighty marble tomb stands at the north end of magnificent gardens balanced by a large gateway on the south. This style was fashionable among Moghul, Arabic, and Persian architects. The charbagh garden measures about 1900 ft. by 1000 ft. Dissected into four quadrants by waterways, they evoke the Islamic image of the Gardens of Paradise. The rivers converge at a marble tank in the center that corresponds to Al-Kawthar (the celestial pool of abundance) mentioned in the Quran. Today only the watercourse running from north to south is full, and its precise, classy reflection of the Taj is a favorite photographic image. The whole area of the Taj complex is about 1902 ft. by 982 ft. while the garden alone makes up an area of 984 ft. by 984 ft.
The canals and waterworks within the charbaug provide a grand reflection of the Taj further emphasizing the imagery of paradise. Muslims regard the Quran as a mirror image of a tablet in heaven, while the ‘tree of life’ grows upside down in the garden within paradise. The architects made the canals and the waterworks in the garden, with the purpose of generating an upside-down image of the Taj, to gel with divine inspiration.
After the completion of the Taj Mahal, each garden within the charbaug was divided into 16 flower beds, making a total of 64. Each flowerbed was planted with 400 different plants. Plants & trees were planted carefully, in accordance with the symmetry of the overall plan of the Taj.
The trees, which were commonly preferred were either cypress signifying death or different fruit-bearing trees signifying life.
The success of this design can be seen in the ingenious, harmonious perspective of the gardens and canals, which tower the massive form of the mausoleum. At the crossing of the canals, the shimmering waters of a wide ornamental pool reflect the vaporous silhouette of the Taj Mahal and the outline of the tall, elegant cypress trees, underlining the subtle symmetry of the whole.
The Taj Platform
The architectural design uses the interlocking arabesque concept in which each monument stands on its own & perfectly integrates with the main part. It uses the principles of self-replicating geometry and the symmetry of architectural elements.
The Taj Mahal is placed on a high plinth that can be approached from a central path within the garden. Basically, square in shape, with peaked arches cut into its sides, the Taj surmounts a square marble platform that is 6.6 m (20 ft.) high land covers an area of 93.9 m2 (313 ft2) marked at each corner by a high tapering minaret 41.1 m (137 ft.) high. The main structure is 62 m (186 ft.) on each side.
At the corners of the plinth stand minarets (four large towers) each more than 40 m tall. The minarets again display the Taj Mahal’s penchant for symmetry. All the towers are proposed for working minarets, a traditional element of mosques, and a place for a muezzin to call the Islamic faithful to prayer. Each and every minaret is effectively divided into 3 equal parts by two working balconies that ring the tower. At the top of the tower is a final balcony, surmounted by a chhatri (umbrella) that mirrors the design of those on the tomb. The minaret chhatris contribute the same finishing looks (a lotus design) topped by a gilded finial. Each of the minarets was constructed, slightly out of the plumb to the outside of the plinth, so that in the event of a collapse (a typical occurrence with many such tall constructions of the period) the material would tend to fall away. There is another important aspect of the minaret that signifies its spiritual importance. There is a letter written on each of the minaret, which when put together spells the word Ar-Rahman (all merciful) one of the 99 names of Allah.
At the center of this platform is an octagonal structure, comprising a central hall with four smaller halls grouped around it. A central bulbous dome, rising for over 55 m stands atop the roof of the Taj that is surrounded by four chhatris (domed canopies) supported by pillars, mainly seen in Hindu or local monuments and sometimes in Islamic buildings. The height of this dome is accentuated by a crowning brass spire, almost 17 m high.
The marble dome that overtops the tomb is its most spectacular feature. It is crucial to Islamic architecture, cosmologically uniting heaven and earth. Its height is about the same size as the base of the building, about 35 m. Its height is highlighted because it sits on a cylindrical drum about 7 m high. Just because of its size & shape, the dome is often called an onion dome (also called an amrud or guava dome). The crown point of the dome is decorated with a lotus design, which serves to accentuate its height. The dome is topped by a finial, which mixes traditional Persian and Hindu decorative elements.
The dome shape is emphasized by two smaller domed chhatris (kiosks) placed at its corners. The chhatri domes replicate or look like the onion shape of the main dome. Their columned bases are open through the roof of the tomb & provide light to the interior. The chhatris also are surmounted by gilded finials.
Tall and decorative spires extend from the edges of the base walls & provide visual emphasis on the dome height. The lotus motif is repeated on both the chhatris and guldastas.
Taj Tomb From Outside
The main tomb is square in shape and beveled at corners. The length of each side of the Taj is 6.6 m with a large central arch, flanked by two pointed arches. Smaller domes rise at each corner, while in the center is the main dome. The main dome of the Taj Mahal is a double dome. The main purpose of creating a double dome was to enhance the height of the structure. The main dome resembles a huge pearl. This was done purposefully, following a saying of the Prophet and describes the throne of God as a dome of pearls supported by four pillars.
Inside The Tom
The inside of the mausoleum comprises a lofty central chamber, a crypt or maqbara immediately below this. Four octagonal corner rooms were originally intended to house the graves of other family members. The central chamber houses the replica tombs, while the actual ones are in the crypt. The Mughal era had a tradition of having a private as well as a public tomb. The tombs of Mumtaz Mahal & Shah Jahan are literally located in the basement while their replicas are placed directly above in the upper hall. A marble filigree screen, which seems almost translucent and inlaid with precious stones, scatters dappled light over the cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal in the center of the tomb. Jali patterns of the octagonal perforated screen, surrounding the tombs are a complex combination of geometric and floral. The filtered light captures the intricate designs & casts mosaic-like shadows on the tombs. The 99 names of Allah adorn the top of Mumtaz’s tomb while a pen box, the hallmark of a cultured and noble ruler, is set in Shah Jahan’s tomb. Originally, the public tomb was surrounded by a jewel-encrusted silver screen, which was later removed and replaced with an octagonal screen of marble, and inlaid with precious stones. The screen is a stupendous piece of workmanship. Each screen has been carved out of a single block of marble and all these blocks have been inlaid. A flash of light brings out the luminescence of the marble and the intricacy of the inlay work. There are as many as 64 pieces, making up petals of some flowers that achieve a three-dimensional effect.
This lamp was given by Lord Curzon, Governor General of India to replace the original lamp, which was stolen in the 18th century.
The Taj Mahal is a two-storied structure or construction, each having arched recesses with a highly decorated iwan in the middle. On approach, the tomb looms larger and grander, but it is only on coming close that its awesome magnitude and extraordinarily fine detail of relief carving, highlighted by floral patterns of precious stones can be admired. Carved vases of flowers, including roses, tulips, and narcissi rise subtly out of the marble base, a pattern repeated more colorfully and inlaid with precious stones around the four great arched recesses (pishtaqs) on each face. The impressive pietra dura artwork includes geometric elements, plants, and flowers common to Islamic architecture. Inspired by the Paradise Garden, complicated carved floral designs inlaid with precious stones embellish or decorate the austere white marble surface to give it the look of a bejeweled case. The level of sophistication in the artwork is evident from the fact that a 3 cm. of one decorative element is inlaid with more than 50 gemstones.
The Taj Mahal contains 16 chambers, eight each on two levels, that surround the octagonal funerary chamber surmounted by a surbased inner dome. In the funerary chamber are found the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan enclosed in a baluster of delicately perforated marble and studded with semiprecious stones. As dictated by Islamic tradition, the bodies of the emperor and his spouse are buried with their faces towards Mekka (the holy Muslim city in the Arabian Peninsula), with the husband on his wife’s right face.
Sumptuous fittings and furnishings, including rich Persian carpets, gold lamps, and candlesticks were provided in the tomb. It has been reported and documented that those two great silver doors to the entrance were looted and melted down by Suraj Mal in 1764 and a sheet of pearls that covered the sarcophagus was carried off by Amir Hussein Ali Khan in 1720. The pillage of the Taj Mahal continues unabated. In recent times, fumes from the surrounding industries have started deteriorating the marble though various court orders have resulted in industries around the Taj Mahal being moved to more distant places.
Neglect And Looting of The Taj Mahal
In the 18th century, external forces challenged the power of the Moghuls as Persians, French and British overturned the loosely knit Mughal empire. The Taj Mahal suffered from neglect & willful looting. Under the British, the marble terrace became a venue for balls and entertainments, while the gardens grew famous as trysting places. The British treated the Mughal monuments with scorn & in the late 1820s Lord William Bentinck, Governor of Bengal also announced plans to strip them of the marble & send it to England for allocation. The Taj Mahal luckily was spared destruction, because there had been no market for the marble already sent.
Taj Mahal Trivia
It is said Shah Jahan wants to construct an equally grand tomb for himself on the other bank of the River Yamuna in Agra. His mausoleum would be made in black marble and the two monuments would complement each other in their design.
- Mumtaz Mahal was Shah Jahan’s second wife but was his favorite.
- 20,000 laborers worked for 22 years to build the Taj Mahal.
- The Taj Mahal is said to have been constructed at a cost of 32 million rupees.
- 28 different kinds of semiprecious stones, were used in the inlay work.
- The white marble used to construct the Taj Mahal was brought from Rajasthan.
- The inlay work on the inner walls of the Taj Mahal is called pietra dura, the art of embedding by hand, durable stones within soft stones for decorative effect.
- It is said that Shah Jahan wanted to ensure that his master craftsmen would never construct anything as beautiful again. He had their hands amputated after the completion of the Taj Mahal.
- The Taj Mahal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1983 and described as ‘The Jewel of Muslim Art in India’.
- Shah Jahan is said to have celebrated the anniversary of his wife’s death in the mausoleum, kneeling before the cenotaph of white marble, studded with gems and precious stones as prayers were offered up for the peace and repose of the empress’ soul.
Technical Skills and Scientific Knowledge
The construction of the Taj Mahal was entrusted to a board of architects under imperial supervision, as was customary under Shah Jahan’s command. The monument stands as testimony to the technical skills and scientific knowledge of its builders. Excellent handling of material and the perfect use of constructional devices, the arches used in raising the grand tomb and distributing its heavyweight evenly, the method of laying the foundation, and the subtle manipulation of minute details are evidence is adequate. The entire complex is planned in such a way that the apparent organic unity of the whole doesn’t obscure the individuality of any part nor does it detract from the prominence of the Taj Mahal proper. Delicate mosaic works and marble walls adorned with intricate patterns of inlaid precious stones are on the inside.
There are numerous significant and striking elements in the Taj Mahal. This consists of the three main elements of the Muslim decorative arts: the sayings from the Koran, geometrical shapes & a variety of plant forms, and flowers, often repeated as borders of the premises. The marble & valuable stone inlays are so skillfully fit together, that one can hardly detect a seam even with close examination. The calligraphy of sayings of the Koran on the mausoleum is such that the letters gradually increase in shape and size so that from the ground all letters appear perfect. The greatest impact is the way all of its parts fit together, so perfectly, making the entire complex, much greater than the sum of its parts.
Nearly every surface of the entire complex has been decorated. The outer decorations of the Taj Mahal are among the finest to be found in the Mughal architecture of any period. As the surface area, changes-and large pishtaq has more area than smaller-the decorations are refined proportionately.
In line with the Islamic prohibition of anthropomorphic forms, the decorative elements come in basically three categories:
- Abstract geometric elements
- Vegetative motifs
The decorative elements were created in three ways:
- Paint or stucco applied to the wall surface
- Stone inlay
Inlaid calligraphy in black marble was used as a form of ornamentation on undecorated surfaces. Throughout the complex, passages from the Koran are utilized as decorative elements. Calligraphy is a florid and practically illegible thuluth script, created by the resident Moghul court’s Persian calligrapher, Amanat Khan, who signed several of the panels.
The calligraphy is produced by Jasper inlaid in white marble. Some of the work is extremely detailed and delicate, especially on the marble cenotaphs on the tomb. Upper panels of marbles are written slightly larger to reduce the skewing effect when viewed from below.
Abstract Geometric Decoration
Abstract forms are used especially in the plinth, minarets, gateway, mosque & jawab, and to a lesser extent, on the surfaces of the tomb. The domes & vaults of the sandstone buildings are worked with tracery of incised painting to create elaborate geometric forms.
The paint is then scraped off the surface of the stone, leaving paint in the incision.
In most joining areas, herringbone inlays define the space between joining elements. White inlays are utilized in the sandstone buildings and dark or black inlays on the white marble of the tomb & minarets. Mortared areas of the marble buildings had been stained or painted dark, creating geometric patterns of considerable complexity.
Floors & walkways throughout utilize contrasting tiles or blocks in tessellation patterns.
Decorative panels of flowering plants, foliage, and vases are realistically carved on the lower portions of the walls. While the pietra dura adds color to the pristine white marble, this highlight the texture of the polished marble and sandstone surface. The marble panels have been polished to emphasize the exquisite detailing of these carvings.
The Mughals were great naturalists & believed that flowers were the “symbols of the divine realm”. In the Taj, pietra dura has been extensively used to translate naturalistic forms into decorative patterns that complement the majesty of its architecture. Flowers such as the tulip, lily, iris, poppy, and narcissus were depicted as sprays or in arabesque patterns. Stones of varying degrees of color were utilized to create the shaded effects.
The dado frames and archway spandrels have been decorated with pietra dura inlays of highly stylized, almost geometric vines, flowers, and fruits. The inlay stones are yellow marble, jasper & jade leveled and polished to the surface of the walls.
The interior chamber of the Taj Mahal steps far beyond traditional or conventional decorative elements. This chamber is indeed a work of a jeweler. The inlay work here is lapidary. The Inlay material is not marble or jade but precious and semiprecious gemstones.
The acoustics of the Taj Mahal are superb, with the domed ceiling designed to echo chants from the Koran and musicians’ melodies.
Since its construction, the Taj Mahal has attracted numerous visitors. Today the Taj Mahal attracts 2 to 3 million visitors every year, of whom 2,00,000 come from overseas, making it the most popular tourist attraction in India. Most tourists visit during the cooler months of October, November, and February. Tourists come from around the world to feel the aura of eternal love that surrounds the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is one of India’s largest tourist-revenue earners & no tourist image predominates as that of the visitor snapped in front of the Taj. Polluting traffic is not allowed near the complex and tourists must either walk from the car parks or catch an electric bus.
Lists of travel destinations often feature the Taj Mahal, which also appears in several listings of seven wonders of the modern world—including the recently announced New Seven Wonders of the World, a poll, which claimed to record 100 million votes.
The story of the Taj Mahal is unique in itself. It is evidence of the importance of emotions and feelings to human life. It is a rare example of devotion and faith. The history of the Taj Mahal is a love story that transcends time and continues to be retold each day to the tourists and visitors. Shah Jahan must be credited with having made the death of a spouse a symbol of lasting beauty. He bequeathed to India and the world its most beautiful mausoleum. The poet Sir Edwin Arnold has described the Taj Mahal as, “Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passions of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones”.